How online 'influencers' are changing the food industry

By Sarah Finley
Technology of Business reporter

Image source, Alla Driksne
Image caption,
Food blogger Alla Driksne likes cooking for guests every week

Five years ago, you had to have a couple of Michelin stars, your own TV show, or have concocted the next big food trend to earn a publishing deal that launched your new cookbook.

Now it's all about your followers on social media.

Thirteen-year-old Californian food blogger Chase Bailey - who has autism - has just written his first cookbook after gaining more than 200,000 views for his YouTube page, Chase 'N Yur Face.

His weekly posts see him cooking new recipes, working with established chefs and teaching his thousands of subscribers to cook soups and macaroni cheese dishes.

"Food influencers like Chase have definitely changed how we look for new authors," Chase's publisher, James Fraioli of Culinary Book Creations, tells the BBC.

Image source, Chase N Yur Face
Image caption,
US teenager Chase Bailey has just published his first cookbook

"Blogging and vlogging [video blogging] provide an additional and invaluable resource for connecting with people - it's information and trends that we might have otherwise missed."

The fact that publishers are increasingly thinking like this is an indication of how the digital economy is creating new types of jobs and shaking up the way traditional industries operate.

Where's the beef?

Food vloggers and bloggers are the new ones to watch.

Madeleine Shaw, author of cookbook Get The Glow, started by blogging her healthy recipes on her website.

As a nutritional adviser she built up her followers via social media. Now, with 40,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 250,000 on Instagram, her second cookbook, Ready, Steady, Glow, has just been released and she also regularly works with brands such as Brita, the water filter company.

Image source, Madeleine Shaw
Image caption,
Nutritionist Madeleine Shaw started by blogging about healthy recipes on her website

Brands are seeing the benefits of tapping in to these ready-made audiences.

For example, fast-food giant McDonald's recently worked with "food, travel and lifestyle" vlogger Doug Armstrong to tell the story of how McDonald's burgers are made.

The company allowed Mr Armstrong to record a video where he visited a beef farm, meat-processing factory, and kitchen. The aim was to promote directly to his fans how the Big Mac burger is made.

Although he was paid to make the video, Mr Armstrong was given full editorial control, McDonald's insists. That said, it's hard to imagine the video appearing had Mr Armstrong ended up advocating vegetarianism.

As it was, the video attracted more than 2.2 million views.

Image source, Doug Armstrong
Image caption,
Doug Armstrong's video about a McDonald's Big Mac has had more than 2.2 million views

"Influencers single-handedly build a relationship with their audience based on expertise, authenticity, and trust," says Arya Alatsas, director at digital influencer agency, Nuffnang.

"They voluntarily give up their privacy, spend countless hours creating content and engaging with others, and passionately share what they care about by granting us an insight into their lives, thoughts, and interests."

Agencies like Nuffnang are popping up all over the world to make the most of popular people on social media.

Image source, Webfluential

This benefits the brand but also the influencer - allowing both of them to gain more followers on social media platforms.

"With social media and technology flooding the internet with over 200 million pieces of content a minute, it's essential that brands find a way to break through the noise," says Kirsty Sharman from online marketing agency, Webfluential.

"Influencer marketing is one of the proven ways to do this," she says. "In 2015, Google actually classified the search phrase 'influencer marketing' as a breakout trend - which means it experienced growth of over 5,000%."

Cook up a career

The sharing economy is also having an impact on the world of food.

VizEat is an online service that hooks up cooks who are happy to prepare meals in their own homes, with diners who fancy a unique, more intimate experience - like AirBnB for great homemade meals.

VizEat encourages food influencers from all over the world to tuck in - the social dining platform allows users to eat in hosts' houses all over the world, and encourages food bloggers and Instagrammers to sign up as hosts.

Image source, VizEat
Image caption,
VizEat dinners are informal, intimate occasions - another example of the sharing economy

Alla Driksne, a VizEat host, doesn't just cook for guests every week, but also uses the app to promote herself online and offline. The VizEat app combines her social media profiles and food vlogs, resulting in more shares, "likes" and exposure for her.

Recently one of her YouTube videos gained two million views in just a couple of weeks.

Ms Driksne sees it as a platform on which to be seen by others.

"It allows me to connect with a new, wider audience - outside of my networks. It is a means of advertising a service that I offer as well as helping me to boost my public profile - hopefully leading to me being able to do what I love full time."

Treasured recipe

Most people in the industry will tell you they expect this trend to continue, and that brands will push these popular bloggers and vloggers to spearhead international campaigns.

"What the industry will see more of in 2016 is influencer marketing strategies that span across different continents," says Webfluential's Ms Sharman.

Image source, Alla Driksne
Image caption,
Alla Driksne says being a VizEat host helps raise her profile

"One of the great things about influencer marketing is that brands producing global messaging can work with local influencers, in different markets, to localise the content and share the message in a way that's unique to each country."

The tricky part for influencers and brands is making sure they don't fall foul of local advertising regulations - making it clear to viewers and readers when content is paid-for promotional material, for example.

And influencers have to be careful not to associate themselves with brands that might lose them followers rather than gain them.

But however the digital economy develops, there can be little doubt that food will remain a perennially popular topic with people around world.

Follow Technology of Business editor Matthew Wall on Twitter @matthew_wall